Great Ad­ven­tures: The Bu­nion Derby

Pat Kin­sella fol­lows in the count­less steps of an event that re­de­fined the mean­ing of cross-coun­try run­ning: the 1928 Trans-Amer­i­can Footrace from Los Angeles to New York

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

How nearly 200 run­ners tried to cross the US – on their own two feet

One mid-af­ter­noon in March 1928, a mot­ley mob of men left a race­track in Los Angeles and be­gan an ex­tra­or­di­nary 3,422-mile footrace. The epic event, quickly dubbed the Bu­nion Derby, sent them across scorch­ing deserts, over freez­ing moun­tain ranges and through mer­ci­less amounts of mud, end­less dust-blown prairies and car-choked city streets from the Pa­cific to the At­lantic Ocean.

With com­peti­tors hail­ing from all over the world, and ev­ery kind of so­cial and eth­nic back­ground rep­re­sented, the 84-day race ig­nited ex­cite­ment and out­rage in equal mea­sure, with black ath­letes sub­jected to dread­ful abuse and in­tim­i­da­tion in the seg­re­gated South.

The race, which fol­lowed the newly forged, rough-as-guts Route 66 High­way for the first 2,400 miles, was or­gan­ised by CC Pyle, a colour­ful char­ac­ter with flex­i­ble morals whose grand schemes oc­ca­sion­ally out­grew his abil­ity to de­liver.

On av­er­age, ‘Bu­nioneers’ ran 40 miles a day, in all kinds of con­di­tions, typ­i­cally with no de­cent food and very shoddy shel­ter wait­ing at the end of each leg. Stages could ex­tend to al­most 80 miles, with com­peti­tors fac­ing po­ten­tial dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion if they failed to fin­ish by mid­night.

Some run­ners adopted stray dogs along the way; one, a Ger­man shep­herd named Blis­ters, kept pace with the race for 500 miles. Oth­ers found the en­ergy to en­ter­tain them­selves in the evenings by danc­ing – un­til one com­peti­tor sus­tained a race-end­ing in­jury dur­ing a jig.

Ex­po­sure, ex­haus­tion, ill­ness and in­juries forced run­ners from the field al­most daily, right from the off, and it quickly be­came a war of at­tri­tion as much as a test of en­durance. Ul­ti­mately, only a quar­ter of those who set out from LA would run across the fin­ish in Madi­son Square Gardens. But what a strange story those 50 odd men had to tell.

ROUTE 66 KICKS

CC Pyle, a flashy and suc­cess­ful sport agent, had been com­mis­sioned to stage an event to pro­mote the newly opened Route 66 High­way. En­list­ing the help of his star sign­ing, Red Grange – the best Amer­i­can foot­ball player of his gen­er­a­tion and a guar­an­teed crowd mag­net – Pyle’s idea was to merge a mul­ti­day ul­tra­ma­rathon with a trav­el­ling car­ni­val.

Other at­trac­tions that trav­elled across the US with Grange and the run­ners in­cluded a hu­man freak show and the em­balmed body of Ok­la­homa out­law Elmer McCurdy, who’d been killed in a gun­fight 17 years ear­lier.

Pyle in­tended charg­ing towns and cities a fee for the priv­i­lege of host­ing this strange cir­cus, but first he needed some se­ri­ous con­tenders – and lots of me­dia cov­er­age.

He opened the race to any phys­i­cally fit male, and promised an eye-pop­ping purse of $25,000 for the win­ner, the equiv­a­lent of 20 years’ wages

“It quickly be­came a war of at­tri­tion as much as a test of en­durance”

for a man­ual labourer. This and other cash prizes at­tracted a dis­parate crowd of drifters, dream­ers and des­per­ately poor men, as well as elite in­ter­na­tional ath­letes.

In re­turn for the $125 en­try fee, Pyle promised to pro­vide shel­ter and food to all com­peti­tors for the du­ra­tion of the race, or for as long as it took them to quit – be­cause he well knew that many men would never make the dis­tance.

Set­ting up camp at As­cot Park, LA, Pyle in­formed would-be com­peti­tors they needed to be there by 12 Fe­bru­ary 1928, for ‘fi­nal train­ing’. For the 275 men who showed up, this in­volved a 6am break­fast, fol­lowed by a 25- to 50-mile run, lunch, more ex­er­cise in the af­ter­noon, din­ner, then bed by 9pm. It cost 50 cents per night for a bed and 50 cents for ev­ery meal.

This quickly whit­tled the start­ing line-up down, and by race day, 76 had dropped out. Be­fore the start, the event physi­cian, John Baker, ex­am­ined the 199 re­main­ing men and de­clared only 40 of them fit enough to with­stand the race – but the rest chose to run re­gard­less. A prom­i­nent med­i­cal ex­pert, Dr KH Begg, pre­dicted the race would take five to ten years off the run­ners’ lives.

The first day was a com­par­a­tively short 17-mile jog to La Puente, CA, but that night, run­ners dis­cov­ered what it was going to be like try­ing to rest while Pyle’s ca­cophonous car­ni­val was in full swing next to their camp.

It was a stage race, so run­ners’ times were clocked daily, and the fol­low­ing morn­ing ev­ery­one fit enough to con­tinue would line up and start to­gether. Some celebrity ‘pedes­tri­ans’ – such as Canada’s Philip Granville, Ital­ian Giusto Umek and Harry Gunn, son of an Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire – walked ev­ery day, claim­ing the run­ners wouldn’t be able to sus­tain their pace for the full dis­tance, and that a tor­toise could beat a hare in such a long race.

Stages rapidly length­ened and the race soon en­tered the fur­nace of the Mo­jave Desert, where com­peti­tors faced 30oC heat and a re­lent­less, blaz­ing Sun sit­ting on their right shoul­der from dawn to dusk. Wa­ter sta­tions were few and far be­tween. Up to 16 men dropped out ev­ery day for the first four stages, in­clud­ing race leader Willie Kolehmainen. And it wasn’t just the cli­mate that took its toll. One run­ner, Wal­ter Rick­etts, was hit by a car and left for dead by the side of the road with seven bro­ken ribs. Sleep­ing con­di­tions were dire, wash­ing fa­cil­i­ties al­most non-ex­is­tent, and filthy, un­washed blan­kets and pil­lows were dished out ran­domly each night.

Pyle’s cook quit in a row over wages, and the men were sub­se­quently given a $1.50 daily al­lowance and left to find their own food after run­ning what of­ten amounted to a dou­ble marathon. Some of the luck­ier, well-heeled run­ners had sup­port crew, and were able to pro­cure bet­ter lodg­ings and food, and it rapidly be­came a race of haves and have-nots.

RUN FOR THE HILLS

On day nine, the 130 re­main­ing run­ners were fer­ried across the Colorado River to be­gin tack­ling the high coun­try of Ari­zona. Lead­ing the field was Arthur New­ton, an ex-pat Brit who’d made a name for him­self in South African run­ning cir­cles, with a young Na­tive Amer­i­can called Andy Payne in sec­ond place.

As they crossed the spine of the Rocky Mountains – top­ping out at Forty­nine Hill 2,400 me­tres), then Route 66’s high­est point – New­ton felt his Achilles ten­don twinge. From Flagstaff, they de­scended 300 me­tres to the high desert near Di­ablo Canyon and a pre­vi­ously un­sched­uled stop at Two Gun Camp, with a tal­ented black run­ner called Ed Gard­ner win­ning the 35-mile stage with Earl Dilks.

New­ton fin­ished third, limp­ing badly, and the fol­low­ing day re­tired from the race. Payne, who’d been nearly five hours be­hind, found him­self in first place, but he’d de­vel­oped se­vere ton­sil­li­tis, and his lead was short­lived. Arne Soumi­nen, a Detroit doc­tor, over­took him in Hol­brook, and Payne’s name was mis­tak­enly scrubbed from the leader­board by of­fi­cials who thought he looked too ill to con­tinue.

English­man Peter Gavuzzi, Fin­nish-born im­mi­grant Johnny Salo and John Cron­ick, a

25-year-old cross­coun­try run­ner from Canada, were hot on the lead­ers’ heels, and Gard­ner won two stages through Ari­zona’s Painted Desert, leap­ing up into fifth place.

Run­ning through the mist in the New Mex­ico high­lands, Gavuzzi be­gan gain­ing on Payne and Soumi­nen, post­ing 8.5-minute miles dur­ing a stage win at Thoreau and cov­er­ing 30 miles in un­der four hours the next day.

Be­hind the scenes, dif­fer­ent clouds were gath­er­ing. In late March, the race crossed the Rio Grande at Los Lu­nas and en­tered Al­bu­querque, where the lo­cal mayor re­fused to al­low the car­ni­val to op­er­ate and Pyle’s plans be­gan to un­ravel. Gavuzzi leapfrogged Payne into sec­ond place, cross­ing the great plain that stretched from Santa Rosa to Tu­cum­cari, where storms re­duced vis­i­bil­ity to zero, but much worse awaited in Texas – es­pe­cially for ath­letes of African de­scent.

Ed Gard­ner reached the bor­der first, but dur­ing the six-day cross­ing of the Texas Pan­han­dle, the black run­ners suf­fered ter­ri­ble abuse from some lo­cal white farmers. In McLean, over Easter – hav­ing bat­tled though bliz­zards and an­kle-deep mud – lo­cal ho­tels wouldn’t ac­cept the black run­ners, who slept on the floors of jails, post of­fices and barns.

Race leader Soumi­nen suf­fered ten­don dam­age on Easter Sun­day and with­drew from the race. Payne – who’d re­cov­ered his health with the help of a trainer, Tom Young, em­ployed on the prom­ise of a per­cent­age of any win­nings – stole the lead from Gavuzzi as the race passed through his home state of Ok­la­homa, where the part-Chero­kee farm boy quickly be­came a huge celebrity.

But the hor­rific abuse of black run­ners con­tin­ued. Through­out 9 April, a white farmer rode be­hind Gard­ner with a gun point­ing at his back, for­bid­ding him to pass any white run­ner. The fol­low­ing day, Gard­ner let loose, smash­ing the 50-mile leg into Clin­ton in six hours 40 min­utes, fin­ish­ing two hours ahead of Payne and Gavuzzi and in­fu­ri­at­ing some spec­ta­tors.

The race passed Payne’s home­town of Foyil with the lo­cal lad in the lead, how­ever, and in nearby Clare­more – the half­way point of the race – he was given a 21-gun salute. So many peo­ple tried to shake his hand that the adu­la­tion be­gan to im­pact Payne’s per­for­mance.

With fewer than 80 men re­main­ing, the race skimmed Kansas be­fore en­ter­ing Mis­souri in mid April. By the time they reached the Mis­sis­sippi River and en­tered Illi­nois, Gavuzzi – proudly sport­ing a Union Jack flag – had taken the lead and put a good cush­ion be­tween him­self and Payne. With third-placed Johnny Salo even fur­ther adrift, it had be­come a

bat­tle be­tween Bri­tain and Amer­ica.

INTO THE AP­PLE

By the time the race out­ran Route 66 and left Chicago, Gavuzzi’s lead was seven hours and the field was down to 65 men. Sev­eral more Bu­nioneers were taken out by col­li­sions with cars on Illi­nois’ con­gested roads, but a dif­fer­ent prob­lem crashed Gavuzzi’s race. Suf­fer­ing se­verely with a tooth prob­lem, the English­man had been un­able to eat for a fort­night, and on 11 May, just past Fre­mont, he was forced to with­draw. Payne was once again left in the lead.

Pyle’s prob­lems con­tin­ued to mount up, par­tic­u­larly after the St Louis Cham­ber of Com­merce re­fused to pay his $12,000 fee, and the daily run­ning dis­tances were in­creased to cut costs. On three con­sec­u­tive days, run­ners cov­ered 52 miles, 58 miles and al­most 75 miles un­der a blis­ter­ing Sun on moun­tain roads.

This didn’t seem to af­fect sec­ond-placed Johnny Salo, who bravely at­tacked Payne’s lead as the race con­tin­ued through Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and New Jer­sey. When run­ners reached Pas­saic, Salo’s home­town, on his 35th birth­day, the lo­cal po­lice chief of­fered the un­em­ployed ship­worker a job – an of­fer he im­me­di­ately ac­cepted. Mean­while, fear­ing vi­o­lence from Salo’s sup­port­ers (even though the run­ners had be­come good friends), Payne was given a po­lice es­cort through the town.

Fi­nally, 84 bru­tal days after leav­ing LA, 55 men crossed the Hud­son River to Man­hat­tan, where they were forced to do 200 mis­er­able and point­less laps around a slip­pery track in Madi­son Square Gardens – a fi­nal flour­ish in­tro­duced by Pyle to squeeze some ex­tra pub­lic­ity money from the event. The plac­ings were al­ready de­cided, and most of the Sun­man­gled and ema­ci­ated men sim­ply walked around the park.

Payne, a 20-year-old farm boy, had won the in­au­gu­ral Trans-Amer­i­can Footrace with a time of 573 hours, four min­utes, 34 sec­onds. He col­lected his win­nings, paid off his par­ents’ farm, and promptly re­tired from run­ning.

Com­peti­tor Johnny Salo is sworn in as a Pas­saic city po­lice of­fi­cer­while still in his run­ning gear Andy Payne main­tains a strong lead the day be­fore the end of the race Salo ( left) fin­ished sec­ond to Payne ( right) in the 1928 race, but went on to win the fol­low­ing year

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